The combination of a unique culture, rich food tradition, local hospitality and one of the world’s best snow records has in recent years made Japan a stable in ski destination bucket lists. Japan has hundreds of distinctively different ski areas on two islands, which can make planning your first trip a daunting task. By reading this article you are one step closer in making the right decision.
1. When to go
Although depending on the season you might have great snow conditions already in December and the quality of the snow can still be good in March, it is safe say that January is the month you want to aim for in order to maximise your chances for great powder skiing in Japan. If you cannot make it in January then February should probably be your next choice, depending on the season it can snow a lot in December as well.
Here are some snow fall statistics where you can see the monthly accumulation of snow during the previous winters in Japanese ski resorts: http://www.snowjapan.com/japan-daily-snow-weather-reports/charts
2. Choosing the destination
Hokkaido – pros and cons:
Hokkaido´s northernly situation means two things: it will probably be the first to receive the snow storms crossing the Sea of Japan from Siberia and the snow will more likely to be light and dry. If you´re number one reason for the trip is to maximize your chances of skiing some good quality japow then Hokkaido could be the starting point of your trip planning.
However, there are not too many direct flights from abroad to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. This means that you will probably have to fly first to Tokyo and then take either a second flight or a bullet train to Sapporo. If you´re looking for the ultimate conveniency and you would like to spend some time also in Tokyo or Kyoto, then Hokkaido might not be your ideal starting point.
Honshu – pros and cons:
Honshu is Japan´s main island, meaning that besides Tokyo and Kyoto there are tons of other interesting historical cities and sites to visit. And because of the dense network of bullet train connected railroads, the trainride from Tokyo to Honshu ski resorts can be as short as one hour. If you like to travel by train and you would like to spend some time in Tokyo or for example in Kyoto, then Honshu could be the perfect starting point for your trip.
Although resorts like Myoko are known for their great snow record and powder skiing, the more southern location compared to Hokkaido can sometimes mean that the snow is not as dry as in some more northernly resorts. (With the el Ninos and La Ninas and climate change effecting the weather it is becoming increasingly difficult to make predictions however.)
Sky ride, Nozawa Onsen.
Big or small, local or international?
After you have made the decision between Hokkaido and Honshu, then it is time to choose the right resort. The decision will of course depend on the type of skiing you would like to do and what kind of skier you are. Most people of course go to Japan to ski powder, because it is probably one of the best, if not the best place in the world to ski lift-accessed powder. This is due to the constant storm cycle during the winter months, which in the height of the ski season in January-February often brings enough snow daily to cover your old tracks.
It is also good to know that due to the lower ski area elevations most of the off-piste skiing in Japan is tree skiing. If you are looking for alpine terrain then the Hakuba Valley in Honshu, with the surround Tsukaige Ridge mountains that reach almost 3000 meters, might be a good destination. Like Niseko in Hokkaido Hakuba is also a big resort with an international vibe.
Depending on your preferences this can be either positive or negative, on one hand there is a lot of variety in international bars and restaurantst, on the other hand, the streets can get crowded by international tourists. (Hakuba has a foreign crimes unit and Niseko has a resident Australian police officer to deal with crimes made by the Australian tourists.) So if you´re looking for a truly international resort with good après ski these might be great choises.
Nozawa Onsen in Honshu is a great choice for those appreciating Japanese culture. The atmosphere of the town is perfectly described by Mark Baum from Nozawa Holidays: “We are a traditional Japanese village that happens to offer some world class skiing.” Myoko, also in Honshu is offers a balanced mix of genuine Japanese culture and an international ski resort. Nic Klar from the Red Warehouse guesthouse: “there is a good amount of restaurants in Myoko, but only a couple of “foreigner-hang-out” type of bars.” If you want to combine a more traditional Japanese experience within a ski resort these could be your choices.
Then there are small resorts like Moiwa and Rusutsu in Hokkaido or Madarao in Honshu, which might not boast the biggest vertical or the most ameneties, but can deliver when it comes to the quintessential Japanese powder skiing experience. Because you will most likely be doing laps of lift-accessed tree skiing, high elevation or alpine terrain is probably not the most important thing to look for. If you are looking for un-crowded lift lines with good powder skiing in the trees and you prefer a good sushi meal and a beer for après, then a small resort might be the answer.
Remember that there a dozens of small ski resorts still waiting to be discovered by westerners. The ski resort statistics by Powderhounds is a good tool in finding the right resort:
3. Getting there
Depending on your destination of choice you can fly to either Tokyo or if you can find direct flights, to Sapporo. (Finnair has some of the best connections in Europe.) If you have chosen a destination in Honshu you will most likely be able to take a bullet train, if not directly in the resort like in Yuzawa, then at least to a nearby town where you can continue with a local train or bus. If you´re going to Hokkaido then the fastest way is of course by plane. However, if you are not in a rush, you might consider a bullet train, which will give you a better view of of Japan, travelling through the main island.
The Japanese trains are notoriously accurate, fast, clean and safe to use, but remember to reserve extra time for finding your train in the hectic Tokyo station, where signs in English are few. If you have the time and would like to visit several places, why not invest in a Japan Rail Pass:
4. The off-piste policy in Japan
The deep powder snow in Japan is now world famous, thanks to all the ski and snowboard videos and still images shot there every year. The resorts also clearly market the ski areas as “powder ski heavens” for foreign visitors. Still, off-piste skiers and snowboarders are not entirely welcomed with open arms in Japan.
Unlike in the Alps where you can ski in most places at your own risk Japan has a similar system to the U.S. with roped-off ski area boundaries and a ski patrol that controls them.
When asked about the policy towards off-piste skiing, a member of the Myoko ski patrol team stated the following: “I feel sorry for customers when they come with false expectations to what it actually is. Myoko has never allowed skiing off-piste.”
He also claimed that the rising number of foreign visitors has forced the patrol to tighten the rules: “In previous years, not many people were wandering into the woods and these areas didn’t need to be controlled. With the increase in foreign travelers and the Japanese sidecountry boom, the numbers venturing off-piste have increased. This has resulted in more off-piste rescues by the patrol, and the enforcement of rules which were always there.”
In some resorts like Niseko there are marked gates where you can enter the off-piste areas if the avalanche risk is not too high.
Still, in practice, the off-piste runs and the trees get skied a lot everywhere – so much so, that the best tree runs are quickly tracked out after a storm. I was also advised by one ski area official in Honshu about good powder spots in his area with the notion: “maybe the ski patrol won ́t see you.” So the off-piste policy in Japan is controversial to say the least. Best thing to do is trying to avoid ducking the ski area boundary ropes and places where the ski patrol can clearly see you going in the trees.
(Always ski with someone and carry an avalanche rescue kit: beacon, shovel and a probe. Remember that you could be fined skiing in a no-go zone and might have to pay for a possible rescue operation, or fines.)
Most people think of sushi when they are asked about Japanese food and for a good reason: it´s fresh, tastes great and is hugely popular pretty much all around the world. Japanese food is so much more though and when in Japan you will miss out a lot if you don´t explore the whole variety of food on offer.
One dish that has become trendy also in western countries recently is a slopeside café and restaurant stable in Japan: Ramen soup. A bowl of Ramen enjoyed either during the lunch break on the ski hill or at a corner shop of a busy street is usually something you can´t go wrong with: it´s hearty, tastes good and is great value for money. Being one of the rare dishes in Japan where there aren´t too strict rules in the preparation the ingredients can vary from beef and pork to sea food.
Ramen is not the only noodle of choise in your bowl of broth though, Soba – or buckwheat noodles are the speciality of the Nagano prefecture and common elsewhere as well. My personal favourite are Udon noodles, the speciality of Kagawa prefecture, the thick noodles really soak the flavours of the broth. If you are crazy about Ramen there is a street dedicated for this dish in Sapporo that is stacked with Ramen joints offering varieties of this treat.
If you are crazy about Sushi then resorts in the island of Hokkaido might be a better choise than Honshu. In my experience sushi is more widely available for example in Niseko than in the Honshu resorts. I found the local cuisine in the main island Snow Country to be more hearty and meat-based.
Don´t forget to taste the local specialities of the area you are in, like Onsen Tamago or eggs poached in an onsen bath, or steamed Oyaki buns. Shabu Shabu or Suki Yaki make for great dishes to share with your friends. In my opinion the dishes with foreign names like Curry Rice could be the ones to avoid in Japan (just my opionion).
Local restaurant tips
Nozawa Onsen: (list by Michiko Kono from the Nozawa Onsen Tourism Association)
Resort Inn Toemu. The chef with 10 years experience of sushi-making in Tokyo prepares meals (Washoku). Best in Nozawa with a reasonable price. Sukiyaki, Shabu-Shabu, Tempura and blowfish also available.
Mitsui Shokudo restaurant on the Hikage slope and Shijukara pub along the main street serve great Nozawana Tantanmen, which is a Szechuan style spicy Nozawana noodle. It has a starchy spicy sauce, minced pork and chopped Nozawana ( a local pickled leafy vegetable). Once you dig in, you can´t stop!
Other traditional specialities:
Takenoku-jiru, which is miso soup with Nemagari-dake bamboo shoot. It is a local luxury food favourite made of Nemagari-dake bamboo, which grows in limited high mountain forests. After harvesting it is canned and kept for years.
Myoko (list by Shaya and Shinya from Itadaki Tours):
The beef stew at the Hotel Mumon – they simmer the stew for over a week!
The Udon dishes at Udon no Fu warm you up after a good day of riding. Try the squid ink soup – it is a must eat in Akakura!
Like saunas to Finns, Onsen baths are a quintessential element of the Japanese culture and many of today´s ski resorts started off as onsen resorts catering for Japanese customers. Nozawa Onsen, which is regarded as the birth place of Japanese skiing, is believed to be known for it´s hot springs since 700 AD. Myoko was attracting Japanese visitors as an onsen resort already in 1816 and it´s oldest ski resort, Akakura Onsen was established much later in the 1930´s.
For this reason there is no shortage of onsens no matter which destination you choose. In some resorts like Nozawa the onsens can be historical wooden buildings that are easy to spot, in others they might be hidden in hotel buildings. It is a good idea to ask your residence or the tourism agency about the onsen choice and their recommendations. Some, like the 13 communal bath houses or Soto-yu in Nozawa Onsen, are free of charge, others may have a small entry fee.
The temperature of the water and the type of sulphurous water the onsens use vary from one to the other. Depending on the water´s origin the colour and the list of minerals it contains varies. Different types of waters are believed to cure different ails and ilnessess – you can ask the bath house or the tourist agency if they can tell you this.
Mostly there are separate onsens for men and women. Upon entering a bath house you will have to undress and leave your clothes and belongings either in a locker or if it´s a historical onsen, just on a shelf in the vestibule. You should then take a small chair and wash yourself, sitting down in the shower area. After that you a free to enter the hot bath, naked. It is polite to say hello and you can try to have a conversation with your fellow bathers or just enjoy the relaxing bath.
7. Taking a day off
While powder skiing might be the reason for your trip to Japan it would be a shame not to look around elsewhere as well during your stay. There are a lot of potential cities and sites to explore on your day off the slopes – if you have plenty of time on hand why not spend a few extra days in Japan?
The options are plentiful – you could spend days just to explore different areas of Tokyo and not get bored. The historical town of Kyoto is another popular destination. If you are going to a resort in the Snow Country it would make sense to visit the city of Nagano, the Jigokudani Monkey Park or the historical onsen town of Shibu Onsen. If your destination is in Hokkaido then spend a day in Sapporo.
If it´s your first time in Japan be prepared for a sensory overload, which might hit you just walking off the Tokyo Station, the Sapporo or Nagano railway station: the hords of busy salary men that surround you, the flashing of the neon lights, the blinking of the game halls and just the seemingly endless array of products on sale in the department stores.
Shibuya and Shinjuku are good places to start for a first time visitor in Tokyo, if you have more time you can visit some of the neighbourhoods that are currently á la mode. Last time in Tokyo I visited an area that is famous for it´s book stores and discovered that it also happened to be the area where a lot of the city´s ski shops are located!
Then there is the other side of Japan, which is quiet, humble and respectful of traditions. I once spent a night in a small town of Otaru after falling a sleep on the train from Sapporo to Niseko and missing the last train connection. Although Otaru is probably not a town that is on everybody´s bucket list I had a great time checking out the town and spending a night in a small hotel that was mostly filled by Japanese clients.
More info for planning your excursion:
General guide to Tokyo: https://upgradedpoints.com/tokyo-travel-guide
Short introduction to some of the areas in Tokyo for first time travellers: https://www.elitedaily.com/life/neighborhoods-tokyo-japan-traveler/1529938
Some more areas in Tokyo: https://www.gq.com/story/tokyo-guide-walking-neighborhoods
An introduction to Sapporo: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2163.html
Sapporo Ramen street: http://kimi-tourguide.blogspot.fi/2012/02/sapporo-ramen-alley-sapporo.html
Top places to visit in Nagano, including Shibu Onsen and Monkey Park: https://taiken.co/single/the-top-5-places-to-visit-in-nagano-in-winter
Guide to Kyoto: https://www.insidekyoto.com